An avid horticulturalist, Monet spent the last twenty-five years of his life cultivating his garden at Giverny with flowers planted in drifts of vivid color, which he consummated with his water garden and its Japanese bridge, reflecting pond and water lilies. The subject of water lilies, in particular, provided Monet with a wealth of inspiration that he explored for several decades. The subject matter perfectly fit the artist’s desire to observe and paint the changes in weather, season and time of day, as well as the ever-changing colors and patterns. As John House wrote, “The water garden in a sense bypassed Monet’s long searches of earlier years for a suitable subject to paint. Designed and constantly supervised by the artist himself, and tended by several gardeners, it offered him a motif that was at the same time natural and at his own command—nature re-designed by temperament. Once again, Monet stressed that his real subject when he painted was the light and weather” (John House, Monet: Nature into Art, Newhaven, 1986, p. 31).
Monet first moved to Giverny in 1883, and by 1890 he was financially successful enough to buy to construct his longed-for pond. How deeply connected Monet felt to the garden he created and nurtured is evident in his explanation to a studio visitor: “It took me some time to understand my water lilies. I planted them purely for pleasure; I grew them with no thought of painting them. A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin. And then, all at once I had the revelation—how wonderful my pond was—and reached for my palette. I’ve hardly had any other subject since that moment” (quoted in Stephan Koja, Claude Monet (exhibition catalogue), Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).
The present work, created between 1917 and 1919, demonstrates Monet’s refined artistic innovation. At the earlier stages of his exploration with the water lily motif, Monet still utilized perspectival elements to orient viewers with a more traditional sensation of spatial recession. He often achieved this by including his Japanese bridge and some of the surrounding vegetation. From around 1902 onwards, however, the surface of the water, the water lilies, and the reflection of the sky in the water became the focus of his subject matter until his death in 1926. As Fernand Leger stated in a lecture at the Wassiliev Academy in 1913, “The Impressionists rejected the absolute value of the subject in favor of considering only the relative value. This is the link which binds and explains all modern evolution” (quoted in Thomas Vargish & Delo E. Mook, Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative, Newhaven, 1999, p. 29).
The rapid, nimble strokes of impasto that form the lily pads in the present work are testimony to the adroit technical prowess that is emblematic of Monet’s artistic achievements. Monet was a masterful colorist and painter of light and atmosphere, and he succeeds in rendering the momentary with intensely beautiful color harmonies. His artistic confidence is evidenced by the contrast between this thick impasto, used to sculpt the lily pads, and the contrasting soft, delicate strokes of the shimmering water, pictorially distinguishing the tangible objects from ethereal light. The canvas’ particularly rich surface, exemplifies Monet’s innate understanding of his medium.
Although Monet has unmoored viewers in this painting by eliminating banks and borders to ground us, he creates extraordinary volume of space below the pond and an incredible dome of space above from which the light shimmers down. The extent of the volume that is portrayed, and yet done so on the two-dimensional surface of the pond—itself a reflection of the two-dimensional surface of the canvas—is a beautiful summation of the notion Monet spent his life dwelling upon: how does one capture the abstraction of modern art while still allowing the eye to seek the volume it intrinsically knows and yearns for?
Generations of artists since Monet have reiterated this question and drawn inspiration from his Nymphéas series in astounding varieties of ways, which perfectly typifies Monet’s interest in the individual experience—an analogy itself to his relentless determination to capture and render the momentary ways light and color strike the eye of the observer. While Mark Rothko’s bold color planes and rejection of figuration is foreshadowed by the Nymphéas, Robert Delaunay’s windows and circular forms demonstrate how independent forms of light imply perceptions of movement. As Jean-Dominique Rey theorized, “Late Monet is a mirror in which the future can be read. The generation that, in about 1950, rediscovered it, also taught us how to see it for ourselves. And it was Monet who allowed us to recognize this generation. Osmosis occurred between them. The old man, mad about color, drunk with sensation, fighting with time so as to abolish it and place it in the space that sets it free, atomizing it into a sumptuous bouquet and creating a complete film of a ‘beyond painting,’ remains of consequential relevance today” (Jean-Dominique Rey, Monet Water Lilies-The Complete Series, Paris, 2008, p. 116).
The present work is one of the few smaller-scale works from the Nymphéas series to remain in private hands. Pivotal iterations of Monet’s water lily motif, these works led directly to the monumental canvases that culminated his long career: Les Grandes decorations, now in Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Monet wished to donate paintings to the French government as a tribute to the end of World War I, and the artist envisaged an environment in which the viewer would be completely engulfed by his beloved pond. “The temptation came to me to use this water-lily theme for the decoration of a drawing room: carried along the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity, it would produce the illusion of an endless whole, of a watery surface with no horizon and no shore; nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters” (quoted in Claude Roger-Marx, "Les Nymphéas de Monet," in Le Cri de Paris, Paris, May 23, 1909). The present work and others in this series that eventually led to Les Grandes décorations, are, according to Daniel Wildenstein, “the crowning glory of Monet’s career, in which all his work seemed to culminate” (Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. IV, Cologne, 1996, p. 840).
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